Press Release

December 9, 2009

Madame Chairman, my highest priority as Chairman of the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee, is to ensure that all Americans have clean and safe drinking water.  Thank you for holding this important hearing on the safety of our drinking water.


Water is an essential and precious resource that we all too often take for granted. Most Americans expect the water flowing from their faucets to be safe to cook with and to drink. In some jurisdictions that slight chlorinated smell leads people to think that their water has been treated and is safe.

Unfortunately, chlorine and fluoride do not treat or remove harmful all substances including:


Lead: which impairs children’s mental development and is associated with behavioral problems has been present in tap water in cities like Baltimore and Washington, DC.


Perchlorate (Per-Clor-Ate): A jet and rocket fuel residue have been found in drinking water systems at high enough concentrations to disrupt normal human hormonal functions, and

Nitrates: a common and costly pollutant found in the drinking water of many agricultural communities leads to a condition known as “blue baby syndrome” where decreased oxygen carrying capacity of hemoglobin in babies leads to death.


These pollutants are especially dangerous to vulnerable populations like infants, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems. Treating these and other emerging pollutants in our drinking is incredibly costly. The best way to keep them out of our water is to prevent them from getting in there in the first place.   

Keeping pollutants out of our rivers, lakes and streams protects the water we drink. Restoring Clean Water Act protections of source water streams and wetlands that filter harmful pollutants from our water helps ensure the safety of our drinking water.


This October, EPA released a report indicating that because of two Supreme Court decisions,117 million Americans' drinking water is supplied by smaller streams which no longer fall under the Clean Water Act.


Maintaining upland forests and natural systems is key to protecting in stream water quality and to reducing the burden on drinking water facilities downstream.


New York City has recently done exactly that. Its outstanding, non-chemically treated drinking water comes straight from the Catskill Mountains. To protect this drinking water source, New York recently decided to spend $100 million to protect the 19 upland reservoirs and 3 controlled lakes.

The city decided that conserving the natural landscape was more cost-effective than spending billions of dollars it would take to treat the city’s water supply.


Some of the issues surrounding emerging contaminants, particularly lead, can be dealt with proper maintenance of water systems. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the cost of the maintenance backlog for America’s drinking water infrastructure somewhere around $255 billion. 


Drinking water systems provide a critical public health function and are essential to life, economic development, and growth. Failing systems hinder disaster response and recovery efforts, expose the public to water-borne contaminants, and cause damage to roadways, homes, and other infrastructure, endangering lives and resulting in billions of dollars in losses. 


Maryland is all too familiar with the these losses as we have suffered serious infrastructure failures in the last year on River Road in Bethesda and in the town of Dundalk outside of Baltimore.


Safe and secure water supplies and healthy drinking water start with a functional and modern water infrastructure system.  The nation’s drinking-water systems face staggering public investment needs over the next 20 years.


Although America spends billions on infrastructure each year, drinking water systems face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion in funding needed to replace aging facilities that are near the end of their useful life and to comply with existing and future federal water regulations.


Federal assistance has not kept pace with demand, however. Between FY 1997 and FY 2008, Congress appropriated approximately $9.5 billion for the SRF. This 11-year total is only slightly more than the annual capital investment gap for each of those years as calculated by the EPA in 2002.


In Maryland these maintenance issues are the root of serious contamination issues that have gone unaddressed for years.


The presence of lead in Baltimore City schools’ drinking fountains was first documented in the early 1990s. The source of the contamination was believed to be old pipes within the school buildings. At the time school officials said sinks and fountains with unsafe lead levels would be turned off and water coolers similar to those in many offices would replace them.


In 2003, however, the city's health commissioner ordered water fountains turned off at more than 100 schools because of reports that drinking fountains in scores of city schools were dispensing lead-tainted water, more than a decade after the fountains had been ordered shut off.


Sadly, in 2007 the school system determined that it would be more cost effective to provide bottled water indefinitely, rather than retrofitting and monitoring the existing plumbing in school buildings.

Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have found that a large percentage of fish in the Potomac and its tributaries are intersex – meaning they have both male and female characteristics within the same fish. The most densely populated, heavily farmed, study area in the Potomac experienced a 75 percent intersex fish rate, while less habited sites had 14-35 percent rates. What human populations are flushing and dumping into the river is causing these mutations in the fish.


The occurrence of intersex fish has been associated with known or suspected endocrine disrupting compounds which are not removed during standard sewage treatment, and in runoff from farming operations. These compounds can include estrogen from birth control pills and hormone replacements, pesticides and fertilizers used on crops, and hormones from livestock operations.

According to Dr. John Peterson Myers, chief scientist for Environmental Health Sciences of Charlottesville, VA: “Endocrine disrupting compounds are major pollutants in the Potomac watershed, and we need to exercise the utmost caution when introducing these compounds into our rivers, streams and, ultimately, our drinking water.” 

The Potomac River is Maryland’s largest drinking water source. These fish are equivalent to the canaries in the mine. Like the canaries that signal contaminants in the air miners breathe, these mutant fish alert us to the contaminants in the water we drink.


We’ve got to do better. Madame Chairman, I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today on how we will begin to do that.